THE WINDHAM-CAMPBELL PRIZES 2020: And the winners are…

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2020’s powerful, female-dominated line-up of Windham-Campbell Prize recipients unites a rich, international collection of writers whose challenging work explores pressing political and social themes across identity, culture and power. Now in their eighth year, the Prizes celebrate writers at every stage of their careers.

In poetry prizes have been awarded to British-Indian poet Bhanu Kapil and the incredible Jonah Mixon-Webster. For drama; Julia Cho and Aleshea Harris were both chosen as winners. Prizes for fiction have gone to Yiyun Li and Namwali Serpell. In nonfiction, awards have been given to Maria Tumarkin and Anne Boyer.

Bhanu Kapil is known for exploring crucial questions of trauma, healing and immigration. She is a British writer of Indian origin who now lives between the United Kingdom and the United States. She is the author of a poetry blog, The Vortex of Formidable Sparkles, and six full-length poetry collections. Her most recent publication, Ban en Banlieue (2016), takes a mysterious being called Ban as its protagonist. “Ban,” Kapil tells us, is not an immigrant. She is not even a body, but a “bodily outline.” A passive-violent, beautiful-monstrous, familiar-strange, present-absence, “Ban” recalls but refuses to represent those individuals who are despised, displaced, or even “banned” by the neocolonialist nations in which they live. An earlier collection, Schizophrene (2011) likewise disrupts the familiar tropes of the diaspora story, arguing that “it is psychotic not to know when you are in a national space.” Of course, as Kapil shows us, national spaces are themselves a kind of mass psychosis, their border walls built not with bricks but with the bodies and minds of the marginalized. In all her work, Kapil’s primary interest is on these marginalized: those living on the bottom, along the edges, citizens of what she calls “the floor of the world.” Kapil taught for many years at Naropa University and Goddard College. In 2019, she was awarded the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship at the University of Cambridge. During this time, she completed her first full-length poetry collection to be published in the United Kingdom, How to Wash a Heart (2020).

Jonah Mixon-Webster unflinching poetry tackles the public health crisis in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. He is a poet and conceptual/sound artist from Flint, Michigan. His debut poetry collection, Stereo(TYPE) (2018), was awarded the 2017 Sawtooth Poetry Prize and the prestigious PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry in 2019. In his acceptance speech, Mixon-Webster declared that his first ambition as a poet is “to tell the truth about what is happening in Flint, Michigan.” An artful and powerful work of poetic activism, Stereo(TYPE) uses oral history, government documentation, photography, and found text to tell the story of the ongoing public health crisis in Mixon-Webster’s hometown. With driving lyricism, he invites us into a Flint devastated by economic and racialized violence: its businesses, homes, and streets battered, its population winnowed. Intimate and violent, provocative and tender, mythic and ritualistic, Stereo(TYPE) compels its readers to become witnesses to environmental and social evil, and in so doing, to choose between radical solidarity with Flint—or complicity with those who have enabled the government’s relentless predation and persecution of its people. “Resistance,” Mixon-Webster writes, is to “occupy a wound / with a mouth.” Mixon-Webster is co-leader of the PEN America Detroit Chapter and is a 2019-2020 Writing for Justice Fellow. He has earned degrees from Eastern Michigan University and is currently completing his doctoral degree in Creative Writing at Illinois State University

Aleshea Harris’ courageous works confronts the wounds of misogyny and racism. She is an American playwright, performer, and screenwriter. Her debut play Is God Is won the American Playwriting Foundation’s Relentless Award in 2016. Critic Jeffrey Fleishman has described Harris as “a playwright in fierce struggle with America.” Is God Is and its follow-up, What to Send Up When It Goes Down (2018), confront the physical and psychological wounds of misogyny and racism, respectively. In the latter play, which Harris calls a “play-pageant-ritual response to anti-blackness,” a character tells the audience: “I looked down and realized the joke was on me, literally, all over me and in me.” Calling upon fairy tales and the novels of Toni Morrison, Greek myth and police reports, Harris’s work centres black bodies, celebrating them in their full spectrum of beauty and complexity: Love, rage, delight, recollection, speculation, and defiance all have a place in her character’s lives. A two-time finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (2020, 2018), a two-time MacDowell Fellow (2019, 2016), a winner of the Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting (2019) and a winner of the Obie Award for Playwriting (2018), Harris lives in Los Angeles and performs her work around the world.

Julia Cho is the incredible talent behind The Aubergine. She is a native of Los Angeles, is the author of nine plays. Subtle, intimate, and wildly intelligent, Cho’s work explores the power and frailty of human connection—between cultures, between individuals, between generations, between institutions. Her characters are full of feeling but never sentimental; her plots are simple but rich with implication, their submerged meanings arising gradually, line by line, scene by scene. In Aubergine (2016), food becomes an act of translation between a young man and his dying father. In Office Hour (2017), Cho imagines an array of possible resolutions—some moving, some terrifying—to the story of an angry creative writing student unable to communicate with his classmates or instructors. In The Language Archive (2010), a scholar of dead and dying languages must confront his inability to express himself, and his own existential loneliness, to his estranged wife. Alternately lyrical and sharp, rigorous and whimsical, Cho’s plays demand that we listen: to feeling, to language, to one another. An alumna of Amherst College, UC Berkeley, the Julliard School and New York University, Cho also writes for television and film. She has been a recipient of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (2010), the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwright Award (2005), the Claire Tow Award for Emerging Playwrights, and a Lilly Award among many other honors.

Yiyun Li is the prolific Chinese-born author of The Vagrants. She was born in Beijing, China and is the author of four novels—the latest, Must I Go, is to be published in August 2020—two short story collections, and a memoir. Li started writing in English in her twenties, and from the beginning of her career her work has earned praise for its formal beauty, imaginative daring, and intense interest in both the small flames of ordinary lives and the sweeping fires of political and social change. Her first novel, The Vagrants (2007), paints a portrait of a provincial Chinese town at a moment of crisis, with a young woman about to be executed as a counter revolutionary. In recent years, she has continued to write about the complex and often difficult relationship between personal freedom and political agency. Kinder Than Solitude (2014) follows a group of friends after the Tiananmen Square protests; Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (2017), an essay collection, is both an examination of the exterior forces that power Li’s writing—literary, personal, and political—and an interrogation of selfhood. In all her work, Li displays a piercing clarity of vision, and a committed, sometimes painful empathy for individuals and for the fragile bonds between them. A former fellow of the MacArthur (2010) and Whiting (2006) Foundations, among many other honours, Li is a Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University. Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Namwali Serpell’s work explores themes of identity and belonging. She is a Zambian writer who lives and teaches in the United States. Her short story “The Sack” (2015) won the Caine Prize in African Fiction, and her first novel, The Old Drift, was published to global acclaim. Praised as “dazzling” by Salman Rushdie, short-listed for two L.A. Times Book Prizes, and long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, The Old Drift was also named one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times, one of the 100 Must-Read Books of the Year by Time, and a book of the year by The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and National Public Radio. The Old Drift tells the story of three families—with people of African, European, and Indian descent—living in Zambia over the course of two hundred years. Part historical adventure, part psychological realism, part futuristic thriller, and part magical realism, the novel is an audacious, lush, sprawling, and altogether brilliant celebration of the artifice of fiction. An associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, Serpell is also the author of a book of literary criticism, Seven Modes of Uncertainty (2014), as well as a forthcoming essay collection, Stranger Faces (2020). She currently lives in San Francisco.

Maria Tumarkin’s works explore the lives of ordinary people with extraordinarily painful pasts. Maria Tumarkin is a native of Kharkov, Ukraine and the author of four works of nonfiction: Axiomatic (2018), Otherland: A Journey with My Daughter(2016), Courage (2007), and Traumascapes: The Power and Fate of Places Transformed by Tragedy (2005). Tumarkin’s primary subject is the interrelatedness of past and present. For her, the continual presence of the past is generative as well as traumatic, each incursion a source of aesthetic, emotional, and ethical energy, an opportunity to imagine new ways of understanding collective and personal histories. In Axiomatic, for instance, Tumarkin uses a complex play of meditation, storytelling, and reportage to represent the lives of ordinary people with extraordinarily painful pasts. Her protagonists are asylum seekers, grieving parents, and holocaust survivors, and Tumarkin shows us how their pain both shapes them and is shaped by them; how, in a profound sense, their pain is them, just as it is now us, who have heard their stories. “As to us, me and you,” Tumarkin writes, “we are the broken vessel containing, spilling all over the place, those who came before us.” Tumarkin lives in Melbourne, Australia where she teaches creative writing.

Anne Boyer is the author of the searingly honest exploration of cancer The Undying. She is an American essayist and poet. Her boundary-blurring body of work includes two books of nonfiction, a poetry collection, and several chapbooks. Most recently, her book The Undying: Pain, vulnerability, mortality, medicine, art, time, dreams, data, exhaustion, cancer, and art (2019) earned accolades for its formal inventiveness and searing prose. The story of Boyer’s experience with a highly aggressive form of triple-negative breast cancer, The Undying is not a traditional memoir but something altogether different and new; a fierce and funny experiment in cultural criticism and personal history, malediction and requiem. Here, as in her essay collection A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (2018), Boyer reveals herself to be a kind of intellectual knight-errant, a wanderer through territories difficult and diverse—cancer hoaxers, John Donne, Roman dream diarists, corporate greed—in search of an always elusive, often painful, but occasionally enchanting truth. Boyer’s honors include a Judith E. Wilson Fellowship from Cambridge University (2019-2018), a Cy Twombly Award for Poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (2018), and a Whiting Award (2018). She lives and works in Kansas City, Missouri.

“This is such an exciting group of prize recipients—so many utterly original voices from so many different places. Their work digs deeply into everything from the poisoned water crisis in present-day Flint, Michigan to the vicissitudes of the surveillance state in an Afro-Futurist Zambia. To read the work of these eight writers—seven of them women—is simply overwhelming.”

Mike Kelleher, Director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes

The Windham-Campbell Prizes are one of the richest literary prizes in the world, with $1.32 million USD given to eight authors every year writing in English from anywhere in the world. Nominees for the Prizes are considered by judges who remain anonymous before and after the prize announcement.

The Prizes were the brainchild of lifelong partners Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell. The couple were deeply involved in literary circles, collected books avidly and read voraciously. They also penned various works, such as novels, plays and short stories, amongst others. For years they had discussed the idea of creating an award to highlight literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns. When Campbell passed away unexpectedly in 1988, Windham took on the responsibility for making this shared dream a reality. The first prizes were announced in 2013.

In September 2020, Yale University and the Beinecke Library will host a week-long festival of events to honour the winners.

Click here to head to The Windham-Campbell Prize website for more info and to learn more about the winners.

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